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A Belated Merry Advent Letter

*please note! I wrote this last year and then never published it. It felt kind of scary and raw. I have another letter drafted for this year’s Christmas/advent letter. But then I read it again and while parts are not relevant because I’m in the US and the twins graduated, parts were exactly what I needed to be reminded of personally, again. So maybe it will resonate with someone else who needs to choose joy this season. So, I’ll publish it now.

Merry Christmas from Abroad,

Our four-foot tree is up and shedding quite sadly. The Santa costume is being borrowed by a very Saint Nicholas type of fellow. The stockings, for once, are hung on steps and not over the air conditioner with care. The temperature is a chilly 87 degrees. The kitchen smells like ginger snaps and apple cinnamon candles. The grocery store has a horribly skinny Santa, barefoot, with no shirt under his costume, a rather sexy Santa with bright blue eyes. More stripper than Santa.

Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

This is our Christmas letter, the one in which we tell you about our exotic summer vacations (Minnesota is, truly, exotic to desert-dwellers) and about our children’s stellar performances at school (define ‘stellar’), about all the things we are really good at (like forgetting new vocab words in one of the three languages we’ve learned), and then show pictures of things we secretly hope you envy, ala the humble brag (like our incredible, rundown house with rats in the ceiling and roaches in the bathrooms).

What if, instead, I’m totally honest? What if, instead, I told you that this year I’m tired?

A few nights ago as we drove to church, a local boy made the shape of a gun with his fingers and shot at my face through the car window. A few days before that while I was running, a man drove by on a motorcycle and punched my ass. I miss my kids almost the whole year ‘round because all of them are at a boarding school two countries away. My husband and I started up a big new project, thirteen years in the dreaming and our hearts bleeding all over our sleeves, and no one told us that start-ups in Africa take a toll on a marriage.

I would like to go to a movie theater and disappear into the cool darkness and forget about it all. There aren’t any movie theaters in the country. I would like to enjoy a nice evening out with my husband but if we go for a walk we are harassed or are simply just bored of the same, limited, not beautiful route. We’ve tried almost every restaurant in town, there aren’t many cultural events like concerts or plays or dances. Plus, sometimes it takes too much energy to go out the front door.

It can be lonely here. This year, I have a full life, rich with new staff and new friends. People who speak my language, people I enjoy deeply and am coming to love. But I feel lonely creatively, if that’s a thing. Lonely for my people, people who pursue a life of creativity and words and I don’t even know if I have people anymore because I don’t seem to fit anywhere. Lonely spiritually, for a community that speaks my language – both the language of my tongue and of my heart.

What a depressing Christmas letter. At least, that’s what I thought when I reread this. But you know what? This isn’t a Christmas letter after all. Its an advent letter. A letter of longing, of waiting, of seeing the holes in things and the struggle of being alive while being fully convinced that hope is never in vain.

Someone asked me what I want to experience of Jesus this advent season. I want to experience joy. Not happiness, not glibness. Deep, abiding joy that acknowledges there are so many broken things in the world but that chooses to delight in the healing, beautiful things in the world. Joy that says, all is not right in the world. But, “all will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” Julian of Norwich

So, I conjure up joy because that is what I want. Joy is what I need. Joy is what my family needs. It feels like the snow falling in a snow globe. The flakes rest on the bottom and then the world is shaken with strenuous effort and a veneer of cheer falls over the scene below. The scene is the same old one, the flakes change nothing, but for a few minutes while they fall, it is Christmas. It is beautiful. And maybe that’s enough for this year.

Merry Advent,

Rachel

Good Things the Seventeenth, November 2018

Hey! I missed this. I never posted it on December 1, for good things from November. I did have the list. Here it is now, one good thing for every day from November. I get to still say #blamethecancer because, well, I’ve still got it and still got foggy brain, too.

1 soup. hot soup from my dear friend. And an orange. I can’t talk to even say thank you. That’s why she brought soup. So, now, thank you.

2 sleeping with a big fluffy cat on top of my legs

3 resting with my mother-in-law while the men went hunting (I am so thankful for my in-laws, doubly so during cancer, they have been wonderful)

4 fresh venison on the grill

5 one, last long-ish run around the lake and feeling my heart race and my legs move and my breath, foggy in the cold, and feeling happy I’ve had this running joy for ten years and hopeful that I will have it again eventually

6 post-surgery nurses, especially the one with whom I had this conversation.

Nurse: “How is your pain? Honey? How is your pain?”

Me: (rolling from side to side and moaning and almost vomiting and mumbling) “Idontknow maybefour.”

Out of a ten-point scale.

Nurse: “Oh honey. Let’s say it’s a six.” And then she gave me more meds. That was awesome. And a good reminder that being tough isn’t always the right thing.

7 at least one morning post-surgery with my husband before he left for Djibouti. Not long enough and I miss him like crazy already, but it was better than no time and choosing gratitude doesn’t mean being nit-picky

8 emergency room doctors and parents who make healthcare decisions for me when I can barely finish a coherent sentence

9 something not-cancer related: going to my soon-to-be sister-in-law’s wedding dress fitting. She picked a gorgeous dress but she makes the dress move from gorgeous to stunning. So happy for my brother and for her.

10 old friend from far away, one of my first-ever friends drove through multiple states to visit me and sit with me and drive me around

11 walking in the snow on a silent Sunday morning

12 talking about Third Culture Kids with women who love them deeply

13 one week post-surgery, one week sans thyroid, feels like a milestone

14 being an extra at an extended friends Thanksgiving dinner party

15 hearing about a childhood friend’s dream for serving single mothers

16 meeting a writer friend at the Loft

17 high school friends (we haven’t changed at all)

18 Austin Channing Brown, preaching

19 Kenyan tea with an old friend who oozes gentle wisdom

20 one college student, home for the weekend

21 second college student, home for the weekend

22 American Thanksgiving

23 American Thanksgiving #2

24 young cousins attacking their oldest cousins with pillows

25 good conversations with my adult(!) children

26 post-op appointment: cancer didn’t spread

27 raspberries

28 brunch with new friends who have big hearts

29 turning in the final draft of Welcome to Djibouti, a guidebook

30 the Nutcracker Ballet with my mom and pork chops with cherry glaze for dinner

Gifts for the Cancer Patient and Caregivers

Comfort and Warmth

Socks. Seriously. Socks. I got wool socks and slippery fuzzy socks and If You Can Read This Bring Me Coffee socks. And my feet would have been so cold otherwise. But now they are both warm and funny. Before that, I only had running socks, not great for the hospital or Minnesota winter.

Softest blanket in the world. Softest anything in the world. Don’t worry about color or style. One of my best friends sent me a red and white blanket and what I see when I snuggle up with it (literally every time I sleep or sit ever since surgery), I only see her, our friendship, and her care for me. Of course the color is beautiful because she is awesome and has good taste.

Cute and comfortable clothes that fit around their particular cancer. Shirts or sweaters with low, open necks for head or neck cancers, that easily pull over their heads or are button up so they don’t have to pull them on at all.

Slouchy pants. For the hospital, for after, for looking relaxed but stylish, with pants that are easy to pull on and off if they are in pain, exhausted, or need to get them off right.now! (like this pair from Athleta)

Ice packs or heating pads. These might be for the wound, if surgery. For the burning sensation after radiation, or for snuggling with during the wild roller coaster rides of hot flashes and chills.

 

Soul Food

Soup. Chicken noodle, chicken wild rice, tomato, black bean, tortilla soup…soup. Warm, easy to swallow, healthy, delicious. Homemade or from a restaurant or the deli section of a grocery store…

Chocolate. Any and all. (the link is for Lindt. Hint, hint.)

Mints. Something to suck on during waiting room periods or after bad tasting treatments or to counter the grossness of medicines. (this is a link for specifically Fight Cancer mints. Starlite mints are also delish.)

Gift card to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Some kinds of chemo or radiation (or my treatment: RAI radioactive iodine) can affect taste buds. Either by burning them, swelling them, or just changing them. I threw out a cup of coffee one day because it tasted like burned metal. Made a second cup, from the same beans, and it tasted great. Weird. #blamethecancer So a gift card enables the patient to get what might taste right that day, to their weird taste buds.

 

Beauty and Humanity

Pedicure or manicure. Also, pretty nail polish, again a gift idea for people like me, who don’t have a lot of disposable cash. Or, ask if you can give them a pedicure or manicure yourself.

Do their makeup, or hold up a mirror so they can do it. Especially if they are in the hospital for a few days. The first day I put on makeup (and I am an extreme minimalist in terms of beauty products), I felt my morale swing upwards.

Lotion. Skin dries out from treatments, cold, surgery.

Essential oils. My doctor even had some for me to put on my surgical gown. Hospitals and sick rooms smell gross. This can really pick up the mood. (I haven’t used the product specifically linked to here, full disclosure)

Cute headbands, scarves, or hats. Even if they haven’t lost their hair, or won’t, they might be cold if they’re in the hospital for a while, or just want to feel pretty while their face is puffy and their scars heal. There are a lot of cute ones out there.

Hair appointment. Depending, this one is sensitive, I know, so check in on how they are feeling and doing with their hair. My kind of cancer and treatment (most likely) does not affect hair. Maybe a hair cut or color, maybe just a fun up-do.

Time out together, or in their home or hospital room when you don’t talk about cancer. I’m so thankful that I got to participate in my soon-to-be new sister-in-law’s wedding dress appointment and cake tasting. I was exhausted and have foggy memories of these events as they were three days post-surgery, but I’m so glad I could participate and feel human and also celebrate and focus on someone else for a while (she’s awesome, way to go, Kevin!). A friend had to drive me to these events, and wait for me, and drive me back. What service and practical love that showed me.

 

Entertainment

Movies (even a list of suggested titles, no need to spend a lot of money. Chemo brain fog or post surgery exhaustion makes it hard to make decisions or even remember things, like what we were watching before)

Puzzles. I do puzzles as mindless, relaxing therapy. In fact, I have an article forthcoming from the New York Times(!) about just this thing. A friend sat with me, three days post-surgery, and we did a hot air balloon puzzle as long as I could stay sitting up. We talked and I felt like I wasn’t utterly boring to her, and also that I had been mildly productive.

Books. Audio or print or digital.

Or gift cards for these things.

 

Stress Relief

Tea. Chamomile, turmeric, lemon ginger, apple cinnamon, vanilla…

Sleep mask.

Massage. A gift card or just give them one when you visit. Again, this isn’t about big money. You’re visiting, that’s awesome. Rub their feet or their hands or their shoulders. Post-surgery, my upper back ached like crazy, from the position my head had been in during surgery.

Cancer Sucks mug. I put this under stress relief because it is funny, which relieves stress. My sister sent me mine and when I drink from it, it gives me a little reminder that yeah, this is hard. Coffee (or tea or hot chocolate) is also delicious. It tells me to enjoy the deliciousness in the midst of the sucky thing. In other words, to fight for joy and to be thankful.

Something for their spouse and children. Babysitting, date night, something fun and not cancer related, a chance to be a kid or a man or a woman.

**

Merry Christmas and I hope that whoever in your life has cancer will feel blessed, held, comforted, provided for, and loved. And that, you, the caregiver and loved one also feel blessed, held, comforted, provided for, and loved.

Any other great ideas for cancer patient gifts?

p.s. This is also a list for cancer patient caregivers. You need lovin’, too.

*contains affiliate links

Gift Guide for Writers, 2018

The Situation and the Story, the art of personal narrative by Vivian Gornick

On Writing Well, the classic guide to writing nonfiction

Give the gift of time. Send your writer on a retreat. Offer to babysit or book them a room at a retreat center or if you have a cabin or empty room at your home, invite them to use it. Then when they come over, do.not.engage with them. Let them write and be silent and don’t interrupt.

Classes. Online or in person. See if your town has a literary center. If not, check out The Loft online courses or Gotham Writers Workshop. I have loved The Loft and am still in regular contact with several writers I met through classes there 7 years ago.

Subscription to their goal publication magazine or a beautifully produced magazine that really deserves to be read in print. Suggestions include Plough Quarterly, Ruminate, the Pacific Standard.

Tiny notebooks. Every writer needs several of these, one for every bag they carry, for the car, for the bedside table, maybe even for their running kit.

Pens. These are the only pens I will write with. Trouble is, the clip part always snaps off. I think the packages should come with extra caps. Oh well, I can rotate the caps after I use up the pens.

Small candy. I suggested this last year, too, specifically Swedish Fish. So this year I’ll suggest gum drops. They are small, so writers can eat a good-sized handful. And, they stick in the teeth, so the flavor and chewing lasts an extra long time.

Also, candy canes.

Jane Austen book coasters. Last year I shared this Jane Austen mug. This year, put it on something.

*contains affiliate links

*for more ideas, see the 2017 list

By |December 5th, 2018|Categories: Writing|Tags: , |0 Comments

Gift Guide for Expatriates, 2018

Not all expatriates are diplomats or educators or in the military. Many are, or start off their expat experience as, immigrants and refugees, students and season employees.

So when you think about gifts for the expatriate in your life, let me challenge you to think about the new refugee kid in your child’s classroom or the new immigrant employee in the office or the foreign exchange student at the college in your town.

If the expat in your life is someone you are physically close to, invite them over for a holiday dinner. Better yet, invite several over and make it a potluck. Global potlucks are the best. If they are a brand new arrival, invite them to do a local holiday highlight event: sledding, Christmas caroling, a holiday parade, a gingerbread extravaganza, the lighting of the city’s tree, a musical concert (loads of colleges and universities have free choir and band concerts at this time of year).

Use the holiday season as an excuse to open up your heart and life to the new arrival in your neighborhood, workplace, school, or church. That gift of relationship, to be cliche, will give back to both of you the whole year through.

Now, for actual gift items…

A language learning app, like Rosetta Stone.

Carry-on luggage. There are some really cool carry-on bags these days, including smart bags that include USB charging ports or bags with apps that connect with your phone so you’ll never lose it and you’ll know when it arrives at baggage claim. Personally, I’m in favor of expandable bags as we often travel with gifts or return with bags full of produce or other items, so it is nice to be flexible.

Kindle. I love my Kindle. From eliminating half the weight in my luggage due to books to accessing library books and ebooks, Kindles have been one of the absolute best inventions for expatriates. I know a lot of people can read on their phones, but phones are so dang small. I still use my Kindle for most of my reading. It is about 8 years old now…

Travel pillow. I’ve never had a travel pillow. Still don’t. Always wish I did but have never just sucked it up and bought one. I’ve probably spent weeks of my life on planes and nary a neck support. Do your expat one better, gift them a high quality travel pillow.

Portable hard drive. With all of our photos, movies, research, educational materials, etc, on these devices, expats are often in need of a new one.

Scrubba laundry bag. I haven’t personally used one of these, but several friends have brought them on camping trips or on globe-trotting trips from country to country.

Subscriptions like Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Prime…

Photo calendar from your family or of their favorite passport country places. Same goes for personalized mugs or notebooks or coasters…Use a service like Shutterfly.

Food from home. Anything from packaged pumpkin spice (I can’t get it in Djibouti) to the fudge that somehow manages to come to Djibouti year after year (thank you Karen!) to a bag of Starbucks.

An experience, or contribution toward an experience in their host country. Maybe SCUBA diving or whale sharking, maybe a night out an expensive, splurgey restaurant…make the offer and let them choose.

Expats, what have been some of your favorite gifts over the years?

*contains affiliate links

*see this page for 2017 ideas